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Doctor charges OMC created, maintains monopoly

Cancer specialist Dr. Robert Witham has filed a federal lawsuit against Olympic Medical Center, charging the hospital operates as a monopoly in violation of state and federal law.'

The 29-page lawsuit was filed July 8 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.

The hospital district had 20 days to respond but was granted an extension until Aug. 21.

Witham is suing under Section 4 of the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. The suit also names Olympic Hospitalist Physicians P.S., which provides hospitalist services at OMC.

Hospitalists are doctors who care for inpatients in the absence of the patients' primary physicians.

Witham seeks not just monetary damages but "injunctive relief," which includes stopping what Witham charges are monopolistic practices, such as informing Witham's patients that he is not available. Witham says it is a conspiracy to reduce competition.

Witham is certified in internal medicine and limits his practice to oncology - the treatment of cancer with drugs, primarily chemotherapy - and gastroenterology.

The hospital district owns and operates Olympic Medical Cancer Center in Sequim.

According to Witham's lawsuit, "This case involves a hospital's use of illegally obtained monopoly power to systemically destroy the medical practice of an experienced physician with whom it has been competing for business in Clallam County since 2004.

"Over the past several years, Clallam County Public Hospital District No. 2 dba Olympic Medical Center has been violating Washington law by directly employing physicians to compete with independent physicians who work in private practice in the same community."

The lawsuit charges this direct employment of physicians violates state law regarding how public hospital districts can contract for services, adversely affecting public health and physicians' private practices.

The lawsuit makes five main points:

_ OMC has obtained monopoly power over the delivery of most professional medical services in Clallam County after contracting with physicians and then directly hiring them during the past 10 years. The state Legislature never has authorized public hospital districts to employ physicians, according to the lawsuit.

_ OMC's employed or contracted physicians now control the vast majority of patient referrals, and the hospital district has used this market power to drive competing physicians out of business.

_ OMC has "significantly and artificially" increased the costs of medical services because it can charge more in hospital-sponsored "provider-based" facilities than independent physicians.

__Steering patients to these higher-cost facilities harms the public health and safety because patients suffering from diseases such as cancer sometimes must wait weeks for appointments instead of seeing independent physicians.

_ OMC has abused its tax-exempt status and taxing power to stockpile cash used to pay above-market salaries to physicians to induce them to work there. This makes it virtually impossible for independent physicians to compete, the lawsuit states.



Reach Brian Gawley at bgawley@sequimgazette.com.

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